The way too early 2012 starting lineup: Offense

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We’ve had our fifteen-window look heading at the 2012 Fighting Irish, culminating in Saturday’s spring football game. While the roster will see the infusion of 14 freshman this summer, let’s take a look at the way too early 2012 offensive depth chart, updating it with what we learned this spring.

OFFENSIVE LINE

With Braxston Cave spending most of spring recovering from a late season foot injury, the Irish trotted Mike Golic out as the center. Whether Golic stays in the starting lineup after Cave returns is likely up to guys like Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard, and Nick Martin.

The left side of the offensive line is rock solid with Zack Martin returning for his third tour of duty protecting the quarterback’s blind side and Chris Watt looking to build on an impressive season. With Cave the third member of this line that’s expected to play at a championship level, the two jobs that still need to shake out are the replacements for Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.

One thing we’ve learned this spring is that Christian Lombard has seized one of the jobs. Lombard, who the staff thought highly enough of last year to let Matt Romine walk with a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, is going to start the season in the starting lineup. Whether that’s at guard or tackle is likely up to Tate Nichols. Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand have already decided that Lombard is one of the four best linemen on the team. If Nichols shows himself to be the fifth, and can handle the edge of the offensive line, the Irish should be set.

Early Projection for opening day:

Zack Martin, LT
Chris Watt, LG
Braxston Cave, C
Christian Lombard, RG
Tate Nichols, RT

Thoughts: This might be what I’m hoping for as opposed to what’s been decided because the first-string offensive line was featuring Lombard at tackle, with Golic and Nick Martin leading the battle at guard. That said, regardless of the physical improvements Golic has made, he’s still not the type of mauler that Nichols can be, and while Lombard will handle right tackle if needed, a road-grader like Nichols is a much better fifth starter than the physically limited Golic. In an ideal world, Golic turns into this season’s Andrew Nuss, a super-sub type that backs up the three interior positions. (That said, don’t be surprised if Nick Martin is the guy to beat at guard, with Lombard shifting outside.)

TIGHT END

A quick viewing of the Blue-Gold game gives you the feeling that Tyler Eifert will likely be a tight end by name only. Split wide, he’s the Irish’s top receiving threat. Paired with an inline blocker, it’s a mismatch waiting to happen. (Take a look at the deep post Eifert ran, it was a two-man route with Ben Koyack running the under route.) Even with Troy Niklas missing the spring’s final week with the flu and then concussion-like symptoms, he’s got to be the leader in the clubhouse to be the Irish’s top attached blocker.

Alex Welch, who had been passed by Ben Koyack last season, had a nice spring, fighting his way back into the mix and showing just how good the depth chart looks behind Eifert. Koyack is expected to do big things next season and into the future. Jake Golic, who along with Eifert is the elder-statesman of the group, reportedly has come down with mono, but he’ll likely only contribute on special teams.

Early Projection for opening day:

Tyler Eifert (never coming off the field)
Troy Niklas
Ben Koyack
Alex Welch
Jake Golic

Thoughts: Expect Eifert to play as many snaps as he can handle. I fully expect Niklas to become a weapon by the end of the season, and the Irish have taken a look at every snap of the New England Patriots’ tape to see how to use Eifert with Niklas, or whoever else can step up and make an impact. With plenty of two-tight sets, expect the top four on this depth chart to see plenty of playing time, and Golic do his best to get in the rotation.

OUTSIDE WIDE RECEIVER

If tight end is an embarrassment of riches, the outside receiver is quite the opposite. While John Goodman was voted most improved by the coaching staff this spring on the offensive side of the ball, believing that the fifth-year senior is ready to tap into all of his bottled promise is a leap I’m not yet willing to make. Same goes for Daniel Smith, who made it through spring practice healthy, and passes the eyeball test, but doesn’t look to be an explosive option. Davaris Daniels is the guy the Irish staff likely wants on the field, and might hope is flying under the radar. TJ Jones doesn’t look to have the physicality needed to be a top-flight outside wide receiver at this level (or at least he hasn’t shown it yet), but he’s taken a lot of snaps and needs to be a leader. Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson, not on campus until this summer, are true wildcards, with the staff believing Brown has the speed and athleticism to get on the field quickly. The loss of Luke Massa to a knee injury, after he looked good during spring drills, can’t help from a sheer numbers perspective either.

This is still a spread offense, regardless of how good the tight end depth chart is. The Irish are going to need two or three of these guys to be ready to go from day one, and the loss of Floyd, not to mention the late defection of Deontay Greenberry, will have Irish fans quickly wondering what could’ve been. That said, Mike Denbrock has done nothing but good things since he stepped back on campus, and he and Chuck Martin taking the reins of the passing game should open things up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Davaris Daniels
TJ Jones
John Goodman
Chris Brown
Daniel Smith
Justin Ferguson
Luke Massa (injured)
Andre Smith (walk-on)

Thoughts: This group doesn’t give you much confidence, but there is some talent here. Past numbers certainly won’t show that, but Goodman has a chance to be this season’s Jonas Gray, and Jones has shown flashes of being a starting-caliber player. While we’ll talk about the quarterback being a game manager, the Irish coaching staff will need to call the right game and play the best scheme to bring the most out of this group, as it’s not going to wow you with its athleticism.

SLOT RECEIVER

This is where we see the versatility of the Irish offense. On paper, there looks to be only Robby Toma currently on campus that plays the position. Davonte Neal, who was among the top recruited skill players in the country, could immediately make his mark, but he’ll need to learn the concepts and the playbook first. The same goes for KeiVarae Russell, who might be the forgotten man in this recruiting class, but someone people think could be a game-breaking talent. The versatility of the roster, where Tony Alford coaches both slot receivers and running backs, and Martin’s redesign of an offense that got way too vanilla last year, make this position a true mystery.

George Atkinson, Cierre Wood, and Theo Riddick all looked very good this spring, with the Irish running attack truly three-deep during the spring game. All three can play some version of slot receiver, with Riddick leading the team in catches during the scrimmage and Atkinson making some explosive plays in the passing game as well. We’ve only seen him with crutches, but the Irish believe they have another elite talent with Amir Carlisle, who dominated during the All-Star game circuit as a blue-chip recruit at wideout and was USC’s most versatile running back before transferring to South Bend.

It may be difficult to classify these guys correctly, but from this point going forward, who cares. The staff knows they are going to need to get the ball in their best players hands. How and where they do it will be fun to track.

Early Projection for opening day:

Robby Toma (could be a breakout player)
Amir Carlisle
Davonte Neal
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell

Thoughts: This group is going to be the most fun to watch. I could make a good argument that every guy listed here is going to have a huge season. The upside potential on all of these guys is tremendous and Chuck Martin is committed to finding interesting ways to get these guys touches. That’s all you can ask for.

RUNNING BACK

When Jonas Gray went down last season, the Irish’s biggest depth-chart deficiency on offense was revealed. With only freshmen Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson available as back-ups, Brian Kelly returned Theo Riddick to the backfield, where he’s stayed after looking natural at the position against Stanford and Florida State.

The addition of Amir Carlisle, the recruitment of Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell, and the ascension of Atkinson this spring has turned this into one of the strongest positions on the Irish roster, and led to McDaniel getting reps with the depleted cornerbacks. Top-lined by returning starter Cierre Wood, the Irish can easily trot out four starting caliber running backs, before ever knowing what Mahone or Russell bring to the table.

With the balance of power in the offense tilted to running back and depth at tight end, expect all these guys — whoever is starting — to get carries.

Early Projection for opening day:

Cierre Wood
Theo Riddick
Amir Carlisle
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell
Will Mahone

Thoughts: The running game is going to power this offense. Call me crazy, but each of the top four guys listed could put up thousand yard seasons when you tally up rushing and receiving yards. That’s a scary proposition, especially when you know that Tyler Eifert is going to get his fair share of touches, too. For as much as people complain about the Irish’s weapons, this position grouping is definitely BCS caliber, and should remind Irish fans of the running game Lou Holtz used to trot out on the field.

QUARTERBACKS

Of course, it all is going to come down to the man behind center. The Blue-Gold game showed that the position battle, likely a three-man race between incumbent Tommy Rees and challengers Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix, is far from over. It might be so unresolved that it gives Gunner Kiel a chance to fight his way into it, too.

The spring game was a microcosm of all three starting candidates problems. Rees forced a ball into coverage and threw a bad interception. Hendrix locked on a receiver, never even noticing a dropping linebacker that was there to pounce, too. Both are mistakes that upperclassmen can’t make. Golson, who looked the best of the three, struggled to get the team in alignment quick enough, burning two timeouts in more than comfortable circumstances.

This battle could go any way before the Irish board the plane to Dublin. But as of now, here’s my gut on where things will end up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Everett Golson
Tommy Rees
Andrew Hendrix
Gunner Kiel

Thoughts: Chuck Martin will earn his salary, and likely his first major head coaching opportunity, if he can get this group to play up to its potential. Admittedly, this depth chart is based around what we saw during the spring game, and the coaching staff had 14 other opportunities to evaluate the position. During his postgame press conference, Kelly made it clear that Golson, while he looked good, needed to put in the time during voluntary workouts to win the job. Never one to shy away from playing multiple guys behind center, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll see three (and maybe even four) of these guys.

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”